Chapter Twenty Three
Oliver swore and dove to the linoleum floor, covering his head and neck with his hands as he rolled up against the wall beside the door. Behind him, Theresa and Nadejda cowered against the wall beneath the window, covered in shards of glass.
“Who the hell is shooting at us?” Theresa snarled. She rolled away from the window, trying to keep her bare skin away from the shards of glass that now covered the floor.
“Soldiers,” Nadejda whispered.
“Soldiers?” Theresa asked.
“I’m so sorry,” Nadejda said.
Oliver kicked the fire extinguisher away from the door and drew his gun. He checked that the safety toggle was off, then pulled the door open and glanced out into the hallway. Whoever these soldiers were, they needed to move now before they climbed the stairs up from the atrium.
Seeing nobody in the hall, Oliver said, “Let’s go. We’ll get past the first stairs and take another route to the elevator.”
“I’m so sorry,” Nadejda muttered. “My mother…”
“Stop talking and follow me,” Oliver growled. “I’m not going to wait for either of you.”
He rolled out into the hall, turned left, and hurried down the passage to the first intersection. He paused then, listening for any sound that might suggest that an armed troop of soldiers could be around the corner, then risked a glance.
The hall was clear.
“We need to get off this hall,” Theresa hissed, coming up beside Oliver.
That’s obvious, he thought. Saying nothing, he darted across the intersection and hurried to the nearest fire door. They had already passed the first set of stairs leading down to the atrium. If they could just get safely up to the third level again and take the north wing over to the west bunker, they might be able to reach the elevator shaft without encountering the soldiers.
He pushed the door open a crack, praying that he didn’t meet the end of an AK barrel.
A pale bluish-purple light flickered beyond the door, but he saw nobody in the stairwell.
Odd that the emergency lights still work, Oliver thought. He pushed the door open and slipped into the stairwell.
The air in the doorway ripped apart, as if the space within the frame was, just for an instant, filled with two different pieces of space which had been knit together into one image and were now being unraveled. The edges of the doorframe thrummed with a bright purple radiance, then faded back to the dull glow that Theresa had assumed to be the glow of an emergency exit sign.
Oliver was gone.
The door swung shut, hiding the empty stairwell.
“What…” Theresa froze, leaning against the wall. Her shoulder throbbed, the bandage sticky with fresh blood that had seeped out when she rolled to escape the gunfire.
“Where did he go?” Nadejda whispered beside her.
“You tell me. You’re the freaking psychic here.”
“I don’t know.”
“Then why don’t you do your little trick and see where he went?”
“I told you, it doesn’t work here. I can’t even see what will happen to me in thirty seconds, let alone where Oliver is.”
Theresa pulled her fist tight and pressed it against the wall, willing herself to not punch Nadejda. They needed to get out of this hall before the soldiers who had shot at them made it upstairs.
“Let’s get around to the other side of the atrium ring,” Theresa said. “Maybe we can take the wing across on this level and find a way out.”
A voice shouted at them in Russian. Theresa glanced back down the hall, her flashlight picking out the form of a man dressed in dark green fatigues crouched at the corner of the hall, just past the door to the office where they had been shot at. He held an assault rifle with a flashlight mounted to the barrel, the pale yellow beam of it barely visible in the bright glow of Theresa’s light.
Theresa swore under her breath and glanced at Nadejda.
“He wants us to stop moving,” she said. Nadejda’s face was twisted in an expression that was more puzzlement than concern. “I don’t understand. That’s not…”
Another man stepped around the corner, also carrying a rifle and a light. He raised the rifle and fixed the sights on the women.
“No!” Nadejda shouted, raising her hand towards the men.
He was not in the stairwell. He wasn’t even sure if he was in the same building. He was standing in the tight cubical of a toilet stall, the metal partitions on either side rusted, the toilet covered in dust, the floor stained and slick from leaking water that glimmered in the light of his flashlight.
He glanced behind him and saw the stall door standing open, outlined in pale silvery runes that glowed with a soft purple light.
“Where the hell am I?” he whispered.
He stepped closer to the door and the light emanating from the runes grew in intensity, pulsating at regular intervals, as if to a rhythm that he could not hear. Something in the shape of the runes was familiar. In fact, it didn’t seem quite right to call the silvery symbols runes. The shapes of the symbols did not quite match any language he knew, but in each he saw something familiar, as if they bore echoes of every writing system he had ever encountered.
“The protolanguage…” he whispered.
He reached out a finger to trace the shapes of the symbols, but drew his hand back before it could touch the letters.
“Do these words form a portal?” he said aloud. “It shouldn’t be possible, but…” he drew a breath, steeled himself, and was about to step through the open door of the toilet stall when a bullet ripped through the air inches from his head and slammed into the wall behind him.
A bright flash of silvery light rippled down the hall, illuminating the cracked linoleum floor, the flaking paint on the walls, the stained and sagging ceiling, and the two soldiers. Theresa had just enough time to think, Where did that come from? before Nadejda pushed her down the hall, away from the soldiers.
As they stumbled through the dark, a duplicate image of them stumbled forward, running towards the cross passage that led back up to the roof.
The soldiers fired, their bullets passing through the false image of the women and slamming into the door to the stairwell. The door through which Oliver Lucas had disappeared.
“We need to go, now!” Nadejda hissed into Theresa’s ear. “The illusion won’t last long.”
Theresa nodded dumbly and followed Nadejda down the hall. She glanced back just as they turned a corner, the passage wrapping leftwards around the open atrium at the center of the building, and saw the soldiers as they also turned a corner, following the illusions in the opposite direction.
“You’re going to have to teach me that,” she said.
“Trust me, you don’t want it,” Nadejda replied.
They continued down the hall, past doors leading to offices, laboratories, and examination rooms, their flashlight picking out every broken window and abandoned equipment cart as they ran. Behind them, sounds of sporadic gunfire echoed down the hallway.
“Where are we going?” Nadejda asked.
“I’ve got most of Oliver’s maps and notes on my phone. The ones we made based on your mother’s journals and the notes she stole on her way out of this place. We should be able to make it to the elevator.”
“And then? You’re not carrying any of the climbing supplies. Shouldn’t we just try to escape?”
“I don’t know, Nadejda. Maybe you can conjure up an imaginary rope and we’ll climb down that.”
“There is no need to…”
Theresa stopped and grabbed the front of Nadejda’s shirt, pulling her close until their respirators touched. “I don’t even know why you’re here, got that? You show up out of nowhere, with your weird psychic powers or whatever you call them. And what was that crap about the soldiers?”
“What about them?” Nadejda asked.
“Saying ‘I’m sorry’ when they showed up, then acting all confused when they started shooting. It was like you expected them all along, but didn’t expect them to shoot you.”
“I don’t know what you’re…”
“Can it. I’m going to the secure elevator. If I can get past the doors I’m going down to get the triptych. You can come with me and be helpful, or you can go back to those soldiers and try to talk them down before they put a bullet in you.”
Nadejda pulled her lips tight and said nothing, but when Theresa tried to look into her eyes she averted her gaze. That was enough for her. Nadejda was lying about something.
“Let’s move, before those soldiers figure out that they were chasing shadows and come back for us.”
Oliver crawled under the partition that divided the toilet stall he had appeared in from the one beside it. This stall had no glowing silver runes painted on the walls, so he hoped that passing through the door would not lead him back to the hallway where someone was shooting, or to some other place entirely. He pulled the door open, stepped out of the stall, and found himself standing in a long bathroom. Three toilet stalls lined the wall, opposite as many sinks set below a wide mirror. On the edges of the sink were a dozen cups holding dusty toothbrushes, as well as several moldy cloth bags that he imagined had once held toiletries. To his right were three partitioned showers, their curtains covered in black mold. He shone his light to the right and found a door.
He approached slowly, holding his gun ready, and examined the doorframe. The door was hung on a double swinging hinge, allowing it to be pushed open from either direction. He turned his flashlight off and, ignoring the tingling fear that crawled up the back of his neck as he stood in the dark, searched the door frame for any sign of the silvery purple glow. No light seeped through the space below or around the door.
He pushed the door open and shone his light into the room beyond.
Beds lined the walls, with small tables beside each and three round tables set in the center of the room, between the beds, just as Vera had described in her journal. Personal belongings were scattered across the beds and round tables, all covered in dust, some spattered with long dried blood. A deck of cards, half out of its box. A stack of books beside a bed. A box of colored pencils.
A violet light flickered at the far end of the room.
Oliver dove behind a bed and waited, listening.
“Is anyone there?” a female voice called out, speaking in Russian.
Oliver looked up over the edge of the bed and saw, haloed by a pale purple light flickering through the open double doors at the end of the barracks, a short woman in a blue and white checkered dress.
He stood, flicked on his light, and shone the bright light directly into the woman’s face. Pointing his gun at her he shouted in Russian, “Who are you?”
She cried out and dropped to her knees, holding her hands above her head. “Don’t shoot me. Please, help me.”
“Who are you?” Oliver repeated.
“Rosa. Rosa Petrova.”
Oliver recognized the name from Vera’s journals. She had described Rosa as an older woman who was especially unwelcoming towards her when she arrived at the research facility. “Why are you here?”
“I live here. Who are you? What are you doing here? Do you know anything about the doors?”
Oliver shook his head and stepped towards the woman, keeping his light and gun trained on her. “I don’t know anything about what’s happening. How…” he stepped closer, examining the woman as she knelt. He guessed that she was thirty five, forty years old at the most. How can she still be here? he thought.
The door behind her swung shut on its compression spring, cutting off the glow from the hall beyond.
“How long have you been here?” Oliver asked.
Rosa cocked her head to the side and lowered her eyebrows in a puzzled expression. “I have lived here for nearly ten years.”
“Here in Primorski Seversk?”
“Yes. Please, who are you? You are not Soviet Army. I think you are not even Russian.”
Soviet Army? Ten years? Oliver slipped forward between the rows of dust covered beds until he was just out of reach if Rosa tried to jump for his gun, then said “What year is it, Rosa?”
“It is 1982,” she said. She slowly lowered her hands and, when Oliver didn’t object, pushed herself up from the floor to stand in front of him. “Why do you ask?”
“Have you looked around this room?” Oliver asked.
Rosa shook her head. “Has something happened to the power? And this door…” she looked back at the double doors behind her, her brow furrowing, shook her head, then turned to Oliver. “I don’t know what happened. I heard gunshots and stepped through the door, looking for one of the guards. Looking for the other women who had gone ahead of me.”
Oliver saw then that her eyes were brimming with tears. As she thought back to what she had seen on the other side of the doors, Rosa’s shoulders began to tremble and her eyes overflowed. Tears coursed down her cheeks. She scrubbed them away with the back of first one hand, then the other, but still they came. A part of him wanted to step forward then, to put an arm around her broad shoulders and comfort her, but he held his ground. When Rosa finally quelled her tears and cleared her eyes enough to see, she looked up to find Oliver still shining the flashlight and pointing the gun at her.
“Who are you?” she demanded again. “Where has everyone gone?”
“Tell me what you saw on the other side of the door,” Oliver said, his voice cold.
“Bodies. So many bodies.”
“In the atrium. I pushed through the door and… I don’t know… I must have blacked out and wandered through the halls because the next thing I remember is stepping into the atrium. And there were soldiers. And bodies. No. Skeletons. Men in army uniforms shooting up at the offices on the second level. I tried calling them, but they ran up the staircase and disappeared.”
Could she have seen them shooting at us? Oliver wondered. It didn’t seem possible, but then it was no more unlikely than him being teleported to the bathroom stall or this woman who ought to be older than his parents standing here now, to all appearances the same age she had been forty years ago.
“Go back through the door,” Oliver said.
“Yes. Go through, then come right back.”
“But what about the soldiers?”
“You said you were looking for the guards.”
Rosa shivered and hugged her arms to her chest, glancing back over her shoulder. “I don’t know if I can. That glow around the door. The soldiers. I’m afraid.”
“And I have a gun,” Oliver said. “I say that you’re going back through that door. If you make it through and come back alive, I’ll help you escape this place.”
Rosa glared at Oliver, then turned and marched back through the double doors without hesitation, muttering Russian profanities at him as she went.
Theresa and Nadejda passed through the first doorway together. One moment they were hurrying down a hallway, moving as quickly as they could without making enough noise to be heard, then they pushed through a doorway that ought to have led to a staircase to the ground floor. The next instant Nadejda had tripped over the dried out corpse of a dead soldier in a decaying Soviet army uniform and sprawled out on the floor of the hallway.
The stench of decay poured out of the body and over both women.
Seeing her companion fall, Theresa managed to pull up short of the body and keep her balance as she shone her flashlight all around and tried not to retch into her mask.
They had appeared in a wide corridor which branched off in both directions as well as ahead of them. Bullet holes riddled the walls and the floor at Theresa’s feet was stained brown with dried blood. Shining her flashlight around in quick, nearly panicked arcs, she saw long trails of blood leading down the passage to her right, as if the bodies of wounded soldiers had been dragged away in that direction.
Nadejda cried out and stumbled to her feet, dropping her flashlight as she tried to brush away the powder of dried blood that had flaked off the floor and now covered her arms and knees. The more she brushed, the more the rusty stains worked into her clothes and spread across her forearms.
“Pick up your light, before you lose it,” Theresa said.
She turned her back on Nadejda to survey the doorway through which they had appeared, then gasped and took a single step back.
She stood before the yawning double doors of an open elevator shaft.
“What happened?” Nadejda asked.
“Whatever happened to Oliver I’d guess.”
“And that is?”
Theresa stepped up to the door frame of the elevator and saw, glowing faintly with a soft violet light against the silvery metal frame surrounding the elevator, a vertical line of glyphs written in a language that she had never seen before.
“Those symbols,” Nadejda whispered, stepping up beside Theresa. “I’ve seen them before.”
“In your mother’s papers?”
“Not in the collection I sold Oliver, no. But sometimes when she was having one of her bad days, the days when father would lock her in the apartment and tell me to watch over her, I saw her draw words like that. She always burned them the next day, or whenever she was feeling better.”
Theresa stepped as close to the doorway as she dared without passing between the symbols and peered down into the elevator shaft. “No car, at least as far as I can see. Good luck the…” she hesitated, searching for some way to describe what had happened to them, then settled on a word she remembered from a game she had played as a child. “…The portal opened onto this corridor, rather than the shaft on the other side. We would have fallen to our deaths.”
Nadejda shivered. “Maybe that’s the point.”
“All the bodies down in the atrium. What if whoever made these… these portals intended for the soldiers to step through as they climbed up to the second level? Maybe then they would emerge stepping into the elevator shaft.”
“It’s a possibility.”
“We need to find a way to get down that shaft, Theresa.”
Theresa nodded slowly and pulled out her phone to examine the maps that Oliver had given to her. Nadejda was right. They needed to find a way down into the secure enclave and, if this was the elevator, they might have no way of accessing it from this level.
Nadejda stepped over to the corpse over which she had tripped and began to search through the pockets. “This body can’t be more than a few days old,” she said.
“Old enough that the blood is dry.”
“But the body is still… fresh. Still some, ugh, wetness to it.” She stood, holding a small leather folio, the corner ripped and bloodied where a bullet had passed through it.
“We could push the body over the edge here. It would help with the smell at least.”
“Until we go down the shaft,” Nadejda said, examining the brittle yellow documents.
“Maybe. Or maybe it’ll go back through the portal and just appear in the hall back where we came from.”
“Theresa!” Nadejda said, nearly shouting in her surprise.
“Don’t make so much noise. God knows if the soldiers are just around the corner,” Nadejda hissed.
Nadejda pressed the brittle documents into Theresa’s hands, causing one edge to break off and fall to the bloodstained floor. “Look at the dates.”
Theresa glanced at the papers, then shook her head and handed them back. “I don’t speak Russian.”
“You don’t need to. Look here, at the birth date.” Nadejda pushed the paper back into Theresa’s hand, then shone her flashlight on the paper and pointed to a line near the top.
“I’d need to know the word for birthdate,” Theresa muttered. Then she looked at the number and froze. She looked up at Nadejda and said, “Are you sure that’s the birthdate.”
Oliver waited nearly five minutes for Rosa to return, spending the time attempting to send messages to Theresa, Amber, Hank, even Remiel. All the messages cued up, but never sent as his phone repeatedly failed to find a signal. That didn’t surprise him, as Vera Blinov had described the women’s barracks at Primorski Severesk as being several floors underground, but the presence of messages that appeared to have been sent both to and by him at times in the future was still disturbing. He had just about resolved to return to the portal in the bathroom and try his luck passing through there, in hopes that the soldiers had departed by now, when the silvery purple light flared and Rosa stepped back into the room through a door that was suddenly standing open.
“Ah, I have found you again,” she said.
“You were gone longer than expected. I wondered if you had decided to try your luck with the soldiers.”
“No. It was… different this time.” Rosa shivered and stepped over the nearest bed to sit down.
“Tell me what happened Rosa. Be precise,” Oliver said.
Rosa looked up at Oliver and scowled. “Why, because you’ll shoot me if I don’t?”
Oliver sighed and shook his head, but didn’t put his gun away. “No. I don’t want to shoot you, Rosa. And I wouldn’t have before. I just needed you to test whether you would come back to the same place again if you walked through the gateway.”
“That happens frequently in this place. Men ordering women such as me to try something, to push some boundary that they are incapable of even perceiving.”
“The bioenergetics experiments?”
Rosa’s eyes widened and she began to nod, then froze, evidently unsure if it was safe to acknowledge her work to Oliver.
“I know about General Koshkin, the secure enclave, all of it. I even know why those soldiers are here.” Or at least what Vera thought had motivated them to attack, he added, to himself.
“Tell me what you saw. What happened when you went through the door?”
Rosa sighed and crossed her arms, hugging them against herself as if to ward off a chill. After a moment, she nodded and, without looking up at Oliver, said, “When I went through the door I found myself in the same hallway, just outside the atrium, only everything was as I remembered it. There were only a few people gathered there. A few of the other women, some laboratory technicians, a couple of guards and overseers.”
She looked up at Oliver and continued, “I thought about going to them, asking what had happened, but I was as curious about the doorway as you, so I turned around and came back through, but you weren’t here.”
“I never left.”
“I do not doubt that. The room I returned to was exactly as I had left it. Before. I mean, before I went through the door that first time. All the other women were missing, but then I saw Vera sneaking into the bathroom.”
“Vera? Vera Blinov?”
“You know her?”
Rosa stood and, ignoring Oliver’s gun, stalked past him and to the bathroom door at the back of the room. Oliver followed her with his flashlight beam, then stepped to one side so the light could shine past her and into the bathroom when she opened the door and called out for Vera.
She turned back to him, her face screwed up in confusion. “The dust. The mold. It is as if years have passed.”
“Do you know of anything that could do this?” Oliver asked her.
“I don’t know. Perhaps. I know that Vera and Nina were assigned to a project in the secure enclave. I have never been there, but I have heard that many strange things happen there.”
Oliver sat down at the foot of one of the dusty beds and set the flashlight beside him, so it still shone into the middle of the room. This was potentially the most dangerous, and fascinating, development yet, and it might explain why his phone was behaving strangely. If it was possible for these doorways to be created in such a way that they not only enabled someone to pass through space, but through time as well, that had the potential to surpass everything he had previously discovered.
“Time travel,” he whispered. “Teleportation…”
“You speak English?” Rosa asked, still speaking Russian.
Oliver ignored her and continued inspecting the lines of the Viking handgun, focusing on them meditatively as he tried to decide on his next action. He needed to find a way to reach the secure enclave. If Remiel’s message was any indication, that was somehow destined to happen, but even if the doorways provided some limited form of time travel he would need to actually take action to reach the elevator.
“Do you know where the secure enclave is?” he said.
When Rosa didn’t reply, Oliver looked up and found her sitting across from him, her face buried in her hands.
“Rosa!” he snapped.
“It is like one of those science fiction books Nina was always reading. I have jumped forward in time, haven’t I?”
“I think so,” Oliver replied, allowing his voice to soften a little. “I think it has something to do with whatever Vera Blinov and Nina Kalguin were researching in the secure enclave.”
“Is that why you came all the way here?”
Oliver cocked his head to one side, questioning her.
“You’re not Russian. You speak it well, but you have an accent. And I heard you say something in English. Are you American?”
“Does it make a difference?”
“Anymore? I don’t think it does. How long has it been?”
“The Soviet Army shut down the bioenergetics research program here about forty years ago. Vera Blinov survived the purge. Made it to China.”
“You didn’t think that the Politburo would risk anyone outside gaining access to this research?”
Rosa knit her fingers together beneath her chin and shook her head slowly. She took a deep breath, then said, “So, Vera lived.”
Oliver nodded. He set the gun down beside him and leaned forward, “Rosa, I don’t understand what is happening with time here any more than you, but if you help me reach the elevator to the secure enclave I’ll do what I can to help you get out of here. Maybe help you find a life on the outside.”
“If the Politburo ordered a purge, certainly it’s not safe for me out there.”
“The Politburo is gone, Rosa. The Soviet Union is gone. Russia is still around, but it is very much different. Besides, you can’t exactly stay in here.”
“No. I suppose not.”
Oliver stood and stepped closer to Rosa, offering his hand to her. “You willing to help me?”
Rosa puckered her lips and looked away from Oliver, seemingly inspecting the door that led from the barracks, then nodded and reached up to take Oliver’s hand. “I will do what I can.”
Chapter Twenty Four
Primorski Seversk, 1982
Vera woke with a start and for an instant was lost in panic as her eyes opened to blackness and she felt a hand pressed over her mouth.
Is this it? Has the general finally decided to kill me? she wondered, tensing.
In recent weeks there had been a palpable increase in tension throughout the facility as Moscow pressured General Koshkin for ever more fantastic results from the experiments with bioenergetics. The general had begun to drink more frequently, even visiting the secure enclave with a flask in hand, which he would wave about as he shouted at the research teams to produce some spectacular result he could show to his superiors. Some of the researchers had produced flashy, but ultimately useless presentations. Others had either faked their results, or deceived themselves in their drive to meet the general’s expectations. One team, which had been studying the remote viewing, claimed to have successfully peered into the halls of the American Central Intelligence Agency. A remarkable claim, to be sure, but one which was difficult to verify. Vera and Nina had both been skeptical of that team’s results, and their caution had proven well founded when rumors reached the women’s barracks that those men had been unable to reproduce their results for a delegation from Moscow and, as a result, been placed in solitary confinement.
Vera heard a shushing noise and felt warm breath at her ear. She relaxed, recognizing the voice as Nina. She blinked and recognized the girl’s spirit glowing in the darkness, linked to her own with a strong thread of friendship.
Nina removed her hand from Vera’s mouth and whispered, “No talking. Follow.”
Despite Nina’s words, Vera turned her head towards the girl and whispered, “Why are the lights…”
Nina clamped her hand back over Vera’s mouth and shushed her. “No!” she hissed. “No talking.”
She removed her hand from Vera’s mouth, sliding it down the side of her face, shoulder, and arm until she grasped Vera’s fingers beneath the thin blanket. “Come.”
Vera slid out from beneath the blanket and blindly followed Nina’s silent, insistent tugging at her hand. The concrete floor was cold beneath her bare feet. The darkness was complete.
It should not have been that dark.
The emergency lights should be glowing over the double doors which opened on the main corridor for this level. The slap of their bare feet on concrete sounded loud in the darkness. The breathing and snoring of the other women filled the room until it seemed a constant roar. Blinking, Vera saw the faint glows of each woman’s spirit and the threads that connected them. From the pattern of which woman lay where around her, Vera deduced that Nina was leading her to the bathroom.
A moment later she heard the creak of a door spring and felt a swift tug at her hand as Nina pulled her through into the bathroom.
“Wait. Wait for light,” Nina whispered. Then she released Vera’s hand and was gone.
What light? Vera thought. She reached out and pressed the light switch beside the door. It clicked loudly in the hollow dark, but no lights came on. She pressed it again, and again, panic growing in her chest. Why won’t the lights come on?
A faint silvery glow bloomed from the direction of the toilets. The light grew in intensity until it illuminated Nina standing outside the middle toilet stall, holding a small paint brush and pot of ink.
“Come,” Nina called, waving to Vera as she knelt to set the ink and brush on the floor beside the door.
Vera walked timidly closer until she stood beside Nina. Before them, dual lines of sigils glowed a faint purple on either side of the stall opening, traced out in silvery paint. Between the sigils, the air appeared to shimmer. Vera felt her heart begin to thud in her chest as she realized what Nina must have done.
“Unstable now. Door will become invisible when paint dries.”
“Nina,” she breathed. “Please tell me you didn’t use the doorways.”
Vera and Nina had discussed the possibility that the sigils which they had been assigned to study might be used to link not only objects, but also places on several occasions. Nina had even created an example once before.
She had scribed two circles of sigils on separate sheets of paper, then handed Vera a pencil and indicated that she should push it through the paper at the center of one of the circles, while the paper lay on top of the work table. When Vera did this, expecting the pencil to simply press against the paper, the pencil had instead passed through the paper and emerged through the ring of sigils on the other paper. It was, however, terribly misshapen and already beginning to smolder. Vera quickly pulled the pencil back through the hole, but the return journey only damaged it more.
The effect had so upset both of them that they had agreed to wait before reporting it to Koshkin. They destroyed both the pencil and papers before leaving the secure enclave that afternoon.
For her part, Vera hated to imagine how many animals might be sacrificed to refine the linking doors, and the thought of what might happen to the first man to step through filled her with a numbing dread. Nina gave no explanation of her reticence, but agreed with Vera that they ought to wait before revealing their discovery. The next evening over dinner Nina had set down one of the impenetrable science fiction novels she always carried with her, looked directly at Vera, and said, “No doors.”
They had not spoken of it, or pursued that line of research, since.
“Door to escape,” Nina whispered. “You go. Go far from here.”
“I don’t understand,” Vera said. If seeing half a pencil mangled by their first attempt at a sigil door had unnerved her, the thought of stepping through such a linking device herself made her whole body go cold with fear.
Nina trembled and pointed at the door again. “Go far from here. Be safe in your new life.”
“I…” Vera hesitated. What possible reason could Nina have for insisting that she walk through a doorway created with sigils?
Nina scurried over to the bathroom counter, knelt, and pulled a small leather briefcase from beneath it. She opened the case on the counter and pointed into it. Vera stepped closer and peered into the case, straining her eyes to see the contents in the dim light.
The case contained hand drawn maps of Primorski Seversk research facility, medical files, and dozens of tattered pages which appeared to be research notes that should never have been removed from the secure enclave. “Nina, what is all of this?”
Nina shook her head in a way that told Vera she wanted to say more, but was struggling to articulate herself. She dove into the pile of papers in the briefcase and came out with the same battered paperback that Vera remembered her reading on the day they had first met. Over the years Nina had read and reread that same book dozens of times. She had attempted to explain it to Vera, but each attempt had failed as Nina’s inability to express herself verbally had caused her to stalk away and read the book to herself. Vera had considered reading the book herself, since it was so important to her friend, but it was written in Polish and she had been unable to secure a Russian translation.
“Explain with this,” Nina said. She thumbed the book open and held it up for Vera to inspect. Squinting at the unfamiliar shapes of the Latin letters, Vera saw that two words on the first page had been circled in pencil. Flipping though the book, she saw more words circled throughout the novel. Nina had done this sort of thing before when struggling to communicate a difficult concept that she could not put into words. If only Vera spoke Polish she knew that, somehow, Nina would have explained herself through the circled words.
“I don’t…” she started, looking up at Nina.
She was interrupted by the sound of a gunshot.
“Go!” Nina insisted in a harsh whisper. “Go be safe.”
Vera nearly dropped the book in her rush to pack it back into the briefcase and close the lid. She snapped the briefcase shut and grabbed the handle just as Nina pulled her away from the counter and towards the glowing sigil doorway.
“What’s happening?” Vera asked.
“Killers here. Go be safe.”
“What about you?”
“Different path. Not yours,” Nina snapped, pushing her insistently towards the doorway. “Confuse killers. Trap them, then go my own way.”
“But…” Vera cried as Nina shoved her back through the doorway.
The bathroom vanished, and Nina with it.
Vera felt a sudden, gut wrenching twist of disorientation as in the space of a blink she found herself standing in the middle of a field in daytime. She tripped over her own feet and fell backwards, the leather briefcase clutched to her chest. Before her, the sigil doorway shimmered and winked out of existence.
“Nina!” she cried.
What am I supposed to do? Vera wondered as she sat in the field, alone. It was warmer than she had expected.
Vera stood and dusted herself off. She was still barefoot and dressed in her nightgown. A young woman alone in the wilderness with nothing but the clothing on her back and a briefcase filled with highly classified Soviet research documents.
Turning around, Vera realized that she was not far from a town. Indeed, if she squinted, she could just make out the shapes of Chinese characters on the wall of a factory that stood perhaps a mile away.
“Nina, what have you done?” she whispered.
Chapter Twenty Five
Theresa’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She pulled it out and grinned. “It’s Oliver. He’s still alive.”
“Check the timestamp,” Nadejda muttered, not turning away from her inspection of the symbols etched into the metal of the door frame.
“It’s a call. Now,” Theresa replied, tapping the connect icon and lifting the phone to her ear. “Oliver, where the hell are you?”
“In the courtyard. You?” Oliver replied. He looked up through the canopy of silvery leaves to the sun, almost directly overhead. It had taken nearly twenty minutes for Rosa and him to reach the courtyard. Twenty minutes of relative time, according to the display on his phone. In that time he and Rosa had leapt back and forth through time several times while Oliver scouted out the corridors, hoping to get a sense of how the facility had changed over the years.
“We’re in the hall by the secure elevator,” Theresa said. “We decided to stick close to it in case you got through. That, and if I go twenty feet in any direction from the portal I lose cell coverage.”
“These doors with symbols carved into the frames. Nadejda and I stumbled through one up on the second floor, near the north wing. We were trying to take a staircase down and ended up here instead.”
“Which stair?” Oliver asked, turning to peer around the tree trunk at the cracked windows of the first floor. It made the back of his neck itch, to turn his back on those dark expanses of glass.
Theresa pushed hair out of her face, then leaned against the wall. Her shoulder ached where the sniper’s bullet had torn through it and the pain was beginning to radiate outward into her arm and chest. “Let me check the diagram, alright?”
“Fine, but we need to be quick before those soldiers show up again. There’s no telling where they are, or when, for that matter.”
Theresa rested her phone in her weakened right hand, pulled a bottle of ibuprofen capsules from the pocket of her water pack and opened it with her fingertips. She shook four pills into her mouth, then sucked at the nipple of her water pack and swallowed the pills as she recapped the bottle and pushed it back into a pocket. It was going to be a long afternoon.
Still holding her phone in her bad hand and tapping at the screen with the other, she pulled up the map that she had been following upstairs. “Oliver?”
“We were on stair J-12. Nice of you to put labels in English on this map.”
“Hold on.” Oliver examined the map on his own phone. It looked like the stairway Theresa and Nadejda had attempted to use was near the place where the north wing joined the bunker they had entered through. They could try to make their way there through the halls, keeping an ear out for Soviet soldiers and checking every doorway for the subtle glow of the portal symbols. Or maybe…
“Yes. It was just when we pushed through the door. Nadejda nearly took a dive over a Soviet corpse.”
“Can you go back through?” Oliver asked.
“Through the door. If you go back will you be in the same hallway? It looks like some of these portals might go to different places, even times, depending on which way you pass through them.”
“You found that too, then? The time thing.”
Oliver chuckled. “Yeah. How did you know?”
“The body that Nadejda tripped over. We found some identity papers in the pockets. Here, let me give you to her.” Theresa held the phone out for Nadejda to take, then settled down and rested the back of her head against the wall, waiting for the painkillers to kick in.
“Oliver Lucas,” Nadejda said. “I’m glad to hear that you are alive.”
“Likewise. Tell me what you found.”
“A dead man. He is wearing a military uniform. I think it was the same as those who chased us upstairs. I found his military papers. They say that he was born in 1952.”
“That’s not exactly a surprise. This facility was last active in the ‘80s, there were bound to be some people born in the ’50s.” Oliver said. He looked around, searching the foliage for Rosa, who had said that she was going to find some apples, and to clear her head.
“The body isn’t old enough, Oliver. It’s been here long enough that it started to rot and all the blood around it dried out, but it certainly hasn’t been years, or even months.”
“They have a lot of crime procedurals on Chinese television?”
Oliver grinned and looked towards the windows nearest the stairway that the women had attempted to take. An idea was beginning to take shape. A crazy idea. “That body still lying there?”
“No. Even through the masks the stench was too much, so we threw it through the portal.”
“You’ve got that right,” Theresa added. She shifted uncomfortably and shone her flashlight down each of the corridors, checking for the glint of eyes or gun barrels reflected in the distance.
“And did it go down the elevator shaft?”
“No. It disappeared. I took him by the shoulders and Theresa held his boots, then we threw the body through the elevator doors. It vanished as soon as it passed through.”
“I’ve got an idea.” Oliver said. “I want you to go back through the portal and make your way to the nearest room with a window overlooking the courtyard. Can you do that?”
Nadejda scowled and looked to Theresa, then shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. We are here at the elevator. If you can come to us, I think that we might be able to deface these symbols enough to make the portal close, then we could use your ropes to go down the elevator shaft.”
“No!” Oliver said. “This might work for us. It seems that the portals have somehow allowed the soldiers who were sent to wipe this place out to travel through time. If we damage them, it might trap them here in the future with us.”
“They’re already here, Oliver.”
“What is he talking about?” Theresa asked, looking up at Nadejda.
“He wants us to meet him.”
“He says he has an idea. That we shouldn’t try to destroy the portal.”
Theresa extended her good arm and opened her hand, waving for Nadejda to give her the phone. “What are you going to do?” she demanded, as soon as she held the phone to her face.
“I’m going to use the portal on the stairs to reach the secure enclave, but it won’t work if you destroy the portal on the elevator doors. At least, I don’t think it will.”
Oliver saw a human shape appear in the shadows across the path. He squatted and raised his gun, prepared to shoot and leap for cover if a soldier appeared. He smiled and lowered the gun as Rosa pushed through some low hanging branches, holding a fold of her skirt in front of her as a basket to carry apples.
“There were not many, but I found enough to share if you find your friends,” Rosa called in Russian.
“Who is that?” Theresa said. She braced her back against the wall and pushed herself upright. “Did I hear another voice?”
“Yeah. Listen, we don’t have forever. This place is playing havoc with my phone battery and yours can’t be any better off. We need to get down into the secure enclave, find the triptych, and get out of here before anyone else shows up or those soldiers find us.”
He gave Rosa a thin smile and accepted an apple, but waited until she started eating one herself before he bit into it. The flavor was sweet and crisp, but more woody than he would have liked. Old trees. Growing untended for so many years.
“And why can’t you just come to us?”
“Because I’m in the courtyard now. If my plan works, we have an almost clear shot to the roof once we get out of the secure enclave. If we try your plan, we’re still in the middle of a freaking time maze, with god knows how many Soviet assassins between us and the exit.”
Theresa sighed and nodded to herself. She looked at Nadejda and said, “I don’t know what he’s planning, but he makes a good argument.”
“Fine, if you think Oliver’s plan will work, I’ll go with you.”
Theresa glanced at her phone battery and saw that Oliver was correct. She hadn’t even thought to keep an eye on the gauge, since she usually had enough power to get through several days in the field, but something about the heavy architecture of the facility, or the spatial warping of the portals, was indeed severely straining the battery.
“We’ll try to make it in five,” Theresa said.
“I’ll wait ten,” Oliver replied. “Then I’m going in.”
Four minutes later, Theresa and Nadejda arrived at the broken window of one of the second level offices that looked out on the courtyard. It took some effort to get down to the ground without cutting their hands, especially with Theresa’s wounded shoulder limiting her movement, but soon they had both dropped from the branches of trees and landed beside Oliver and Rosa.
“Rosa, meet Nadejda and Theresa. Nadejda is the daughter of your old friend Vera Blinov.”
Rosa blinked, then offered her hand to Nadejda and said, “It is… fascinating to meet you, comrade Blinov.”
“You knew my mother?” Nadejda asked. “You must be the Rosa she wrote about in her journals.”
“This is incredible.”
Oliver grinned and lifted his pack. “We need to be going. Rosa, you can wait here if you want. If all goes well we’ll be coming back this way to leave the complex.”
Without waiting for a response, Oliver crouched and dashed over to the window that he estimated to be nearest to the staircase they needed to ascend. Like many of the windows that opened onto the courtyard, this one had long ago been shattered, though he now wondered whether the damage had been caused by windblown debris or bullets fired by the eradication squad.
“Obviously we’re going with you,” Theresa said, hurrying to crouch beside Oliver, with Nadejda and Rosa not far behind.
“Expected as much,” Oliver said.
“You going to tell us your plan?”
“It’s not so much a plan as a guess, maybe just a hope. I’ll tell you when we get there.”
Oliver climbed through the window, being careful to avoid the jagged shards of broken plate glass that still clung to the frame like hungry teeth, and the others followed. The room they found themselves in had once been an examination room. A hospital bed still rested at the center, its plastic covered cushions had long ago split open and spilled their foam entrails. Shattered glass crunched beneath a thick layer of decaying leaves as Oliver picked his way across the room to the door.
He paused there, waiting until the other caught up. “If we see the soldiers, run. I’ve only got one spare magazine and they’ve got assault rifles.”
He looked at Theresa, then Nadejda, then Rosa who had apparently decided to throw in her lot with them. They each nodded.
“Nadejda might be able to distract them again,” Theresa whispered.
Oliver cocked his head and looked at Nadejda, who shook her head and said, “I’ll try. It’s very taxing to do anything here. I still can’t see what will happen to any of us.”
“Guess we’re as ready as we can be then,” he said.
Oliver pulled the door handle slowly downward until it gave a soft click, then pulled the door open just a couple inches. He paused, listening. Hearing nothing but their own breathing, Oliver pulled the door open wider and flicked on his flashlight.
They moved into the hall, then down past several more offices and examination rooms. Here on the ground level, the floor was caked with dried mud and piles of leaves had drifted into doorways and against equipment carts. It took only a couple minutes to reach the stairwell that Oliver was looking for, the one labeled as J-12 on their map.
“Check the doorframe,” Theresa whispered as Oliver reached up to push the crash bar on the door.
Oliver hesitated, then nodded. He turned off his flashlight and peered carefully at the edges of the door, searching for the faint silvery purple glow that signaled a portal. Seeing none, he pushed gently against the crash bar, then hesitated, checking again for the glow of the portal.
“I think this one is safe,” he said.
He slipped through the doorway and waited on the landing for the others to join him. Below, the staircase descended into the underground levels where, according to Vera’s journals, the barracks and military testing facilities were located. Up above were more offices and medical laboratories and, if Oliver’s theory was correct, a way of reaching the secure enclave.
“I wish we could secure these doors,” Oliver muttered. “I don’t like having an assassination squad at my back.”
“You have rope,” Nadejda said.
“These doors open the wrong way. Even if they didn’t, we’d need to secure doors at every level to be certain, and I didn’t bring enough rope for that.” He shook his head. “No, let’s just go and be quick about this.”
He led the way up the stairs, still holding his gun and flashlight in a two handed grip, searching the shadows for any aggressive movement. Oliver was, truth be told, feeling out of his element. It was one thing to raid an abandoned temple or tomb, shooting first and not bothering to ask any questions because whoever else you might encounter was either just as much a trespasser or not human. This place sent a chill up his spine.
Turning at the midway landing, Oliver saw a faint glow on the landing above, where the door to the second level was located.
Oliver Lucas had lived much of the last fifteen years on the edge of fantasy and hard reality, investigating the truths behind ancient legends and, as often as not, encountering a touch of the supernatural along the way. It was not the implications of Nadejda’s apparent powers, or the discovery of portals that seemed to link times and places that bothered Oliver, but the existence of a state sponsored facility that had been dedicated to researching those powers. If Oliver had learned one thing in recent years, it was that forces and powers which fell into the category of what some might call supernatural or divine were, by their very nature, beyond the control of humanity.
“There’s something we are missing,” he muttered.
“What’s that?” Theresa asked.
“I don’t know. But something is missing in this story. Some assumption we are making about this place is wrong, but I can’t quite place it.”
He reached the top of the landing before Theresa could reply and paused before a doorway that glowed with a pulsating violet light that emanated from slivery sigils painted on the frame.
“This is it,” he said.
Chapter Twenty Six
Oliver unpacked a coil of climbing rope and clipped a carabiner to the handrail that zigzagged up the center of the stairwell. He leaned against it and, satisfied that it would hold his weight, turned to look at the others. “The plan goes like this: I’m going to clip on to this rope and jump through the portal. If this portal works like the others we’ve encountered, I should emerge in the elevator shaft and be able to rappel down the shaft into the secure enclave.”
“That’s crazy,” Theresa said.
“And walking through portals that connect space and time isn’t?”
“He has a point,” Nadejda added. “We’ve all been through at least one portal with no apparent injury. And Rosa here has somehow jumped over forty years of time to be here now.”
Oliver grinned widely and stepped into his climbing harness. “Exactly. I made that jump too, ladies, when Rosa and I were leaving the barracks. We had to hopscotch back and forth through time several times before we came out of that room in the present day. And that was just the first doorway we went through.” He finished tightening the straps on his legs, then started checking the pockets on his equipment vest, ensuring that nothing important would fall out if he flipped over while rappelling.
Rosa crouched on the top step and leaned against the wall. “What will you do when you get down there, Oliver Lucas?”
“I’m going to steal something, Rosa. I’m going to steal it, take it out of Russia, and sell it to someone else.”
“You don’t have to be rude,” Nadejda muttered, settling down beside Rosa.
“Just telling her the truth.”
“And what about us? Do you expect us to just wait up here until you return? You’ve got the only gun, so if the soldiers come back we’re sitting ducks in this staircase,” Theresa said.
“Give me a minute to get my bearings on the other side, to see when exactly this portal takes me, and I’ll poke my head back through. We’ve got one more harness, so whichever of you is feeling more up to a long climb back up can follow me.”
“I still don’t like this,” Theresa said.
“It’s not worth arguing,” Nadejda said. She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. “I’m going to stay here.”
Oliver snapped his flashlight to his harness with a short tether and stepped up to the portal. He hefted the coil of rope, eyed the doorway, and reached out a hand to pull the door open, half expecting his fingers to vanish as they touched the door. When they didn’t, he pulled the door open and chuckled under his breath at the absurdity of the scene. He was standing in full rappelling gear, prepared for a descent of a hundred feet or more, and looking out into a hallway that was, to all appearances, the same as every other hallway he had walked down in this decrepit building.
“Hold this,” he said to Theresa, nodding at the door.
She took the handle from him and leaned back to hold the heavy door against its compression spring.
Oliver shook his head and grinned, only half able to believe what he was about to attempt. He tossed the coil of rope through the door, seemingly into the hallway on the other side. The bundle shimmered, seemingly flickering in and out of existence for an instant, then disappeared. Oliver felt a tug at his harness and looked down to see that the rope leading from his figure-eight descender shot away from him in a straight line towards the door, then vanished in mid-air. He bent at the waist, examining the juncture where the rope disappeared. An odd, flickering light surrounded the end of the rope, which looked as if it had been chopped into hundreds of wafer thin slices, then only partially reassembled.
He pulled on the rope and felt the weight of the rope that now hung below him in, he hoped, the elevator shaft that led down to the secure enclave. The end of the rope flickered as he pulled on it, two feet reappearing, then slipping back into the beyond as he dropped it. That answered Oliver’s greatest worry, that the rope would be severed when it remained in the portal instead of passing quickly through.
He turned to look at the others. “I’m going down. We’ll try to contact one another again as soon as I’ve got my footing over there.”
Before either of the women could reply, Oliver stepped backwards through the doorway and vanished.
He plummeted ten feet down the dark elevator shaft before he managed to get past the disorientation of passing through the portal and get his descent rope clamped tight. Oliver braced for the pain he knew was coming and was not disappointed as his left shoulder slammed into a metal conduit. He spun off the conduit, his flashlight whipping wild streaks of shadow all about him, scraped against the concrete wall, and came to a stop.
“Not my most graceful descent,” he muttered.
Oliver twisted a crick out of his neck and adjusted his grip on the rope, holding it tight at the small of his back as he got his bearings.
Looking up, directing the flashlight with his left hand, Oliver saw the elevator doors standing open, their brushed steel frame glimmering with the light of the symbols that formed the portal on this end of the connection. Down below him, the elevator shaft plunged into the earth so far that even Oliver’s powerful LED beam could not pick out the base of it. The sides of the shaft were unpainted gray concrete. On the side which the elevator doors opened into, the concrete swept away into the darkness as a blank expanse, marked only by stenciled cyrillic letters which Oliver guessed indicated either the depth of the shaft or a sequential maintenance number. Lines of tubular conduit of various sizes were bolted to the far wall, the one he had bounced off when he fell. On either side a heavy track bolted into the wall bore the support equipment, heavy braided metal cable, and failsafe mechanisms for the elevator.
“I should have brought a longer rope,” Oliver muttered, staring down at the rope, which writhed and cast wild shadows each time he moved. He had known that the hundred and fifty feet that he brought probably wouldn’t reach the bottom of the elevator shaft, but had hoped that he might see the bottom of the shaft somewhere, not too far below the end of the rope. It was beginning to look like they would have to get over to the maintenance ladder, bolted to the wall about five feet to his right, and climb down that for the hundreds, if not thousands, of feet until they reached the bottom.
He began to walk sideways across the wall towards the maintenance ladder, his weight supported by the rope. If he could get over to that ladder and tie off to it, then the women he had left behind on the staircase could simply slide along the rope and…
The rope shook violently, knocking Oliver off balance.
He kept a tight grip on the rope, preventing himself from falling, but the sudden jerk sent Oliver swinging back away from the ladder. “What the hell?” he shouted, looking back up at the elevator door. His body swung back towards the ladder, a pendulum at the end of a rope that shook again, as if someone on the far end of the portal had grabbed the rope and begun shaking it violently back and forth.
He kicked awkwardly off the wall with his left leg, trying to adjust the angle of his swing so it would end near the ladder. He reached for the ladder with his free hand and his fingers brushed it, then the rope jerked again and Oliver swung back towards the far side of the elevator shaft. He twisted around so he met the shaft wall with both feet, his body hanging back down over the bottomless pit. His feet hit the wall. He allowed his legs to bend, absorbing the impact, then Oliver kicked off as hard as he could with both legs, picturing himself leaping straight up from the floor towards a handhold far above his head. As he swung back towards the ladder, Oliver extended his right hand, allowing several feet of rope to play out so the momentum of his swing might take him closer to the ladder as he slipped deeper into the shaft.
Then the rope above him went slack.
Oliver fell, plummeting into the depths of the elevator shaft as the loose end of the rope fluttered towards him.
“No!” Oliver shouted, the syllable barking out as a sharp denial of his fate. He would not die like this. He dropped the rope and stretched both arms above his head, reaching desperately for the ladder. He still had the momentum of the swing. If he just didn’t panic. If he could only grab a rung of the ladder he might get out of this alive.
The fingertips of his right hand brushed a rung as it raced past him. He grabbed it and felt a searing pain rip up his wrist and arm into his shoulder as he jerked to a stop, arresting his fall at an awkward angle, his back to the ladder. He scrabbled with his left hand, already feeling the fingers of his right hand going numb.
There. He slipped his left arm in behind and around a rung and let go with his right arm. His shoulder screamed as the arm flopped down to hand at his side.
Dislocated, he thought. Not a bad price for being alive.
Then a scream echoed through the elevator shaft as Nadejda tumbled through the portal and plummeted down into the darkness below. She continued screaming as she fell, her flashlight slashing through the darkness.
She fell for a long time.